By Warren Alan Tidwell
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
I am an atheist. There I said it.
More accurately, I am a secular humanist. This description doesn’t mean a lot to many people, but it is how I approach my work in the world. It does mean that I don’t adhere to any belief in any particular god. I adhere to the tenets of secular humanism. By default, I am an atheist. Humanism is defined by the American Humanist Association as a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
When people learn I am an atheist they are often shocked and completely overlook the overall humanist part of my makeup. My wife, who is an openly secular nonbeliever, was once told “but you seem like such a nice person” when she informed the individual of her worldview. I’ve been told that many times as well. People who say that don’t realize how insulting that is. Atheists as a group have been wrongfully stigmatized as miserable, evil people who are determined to fight religion and curb religious rights in the world. One of my many goals in coming to work in Ghana for the Humanist Service Corps (HSC) is to help disprove that misconception by showing that there are good and decent people who are making a difference in the world without the adherence to any particular religion or a belief in a higher power.
Atheists are everywhere.
For the theist- you are surrounded by them and may never realize it. A good number of nonbelievers keep their beliefs quiet because of backlash and fear of repercussions, both real and imagined. There are countless numbers of stories of atheists who have been disowned by family members. From your favorite cashier to people living in some of your homes, there are many who live their lives in the closet, as it were. Some of the people you most admire keep their lack of a belief in God to themselves and with good reason.
I live in the Bible Belt of the United States. I grew up in the buckle. As a child in the mid 1980s I was told that atheists were godless communists living in Russia. It’s the mindset that remains for many throughout the United States but no more so than in my home region of the southeast. One of the legacies of the Cold War is the fact that the term atheist is a description to be avoided. Godless equals evil in many people’s eyes. Even now there are laws on the books in many states in the United States that bar an atheist from holding office. Atheism is punishable by death in 13 countries including Nigeria, a country I’m only a few hours away from here in Ghana, and the United Arab Emirates, a country I recently visited. I find it terrifying that, in the 21st Century, I could have been put to death for simply stating I am an atheist in a supposed modern country.
Most, if not all, news coverage people see of atheists in the United States are those fighting to keep religion out of public schools. I realize this immediately angers some Christians- but they don’t see that these laws protect the Christian faithful too. As long as no religious group is given favor over another religious group then all are equal. I imagine the outrage would be different if Qurans were given out. I’ve been told that prayer has been removed from school. Not true. Anyone can pray but it cannot be led by a school administrator or teacher. Again this prevents a teacher from proselytizing to your child about any religion. It’s not an attack on Christianity.
I am writing this because of the many things going on right now that really concern me about how atheists are perceived and treated in the world. As I’ve already mentioned, the emotional and physical violence that can meet the revelation of atheism and the media coverage of mostly separation of church and state conflicts. I also see falsehoods being perpetrated when it comes to nonbelievers. Movies are being made about evil professors determined to convert the students to non-belief. This tired trope has been played out time and time again yet- even with video capabilities everywhere- no one can prove there is a real life professor like the one in the movie God’s Not Dead, who requires his philosophy students sign a declaration that “God is dead” to pass. These pop culture creations are popular with a certain part of the religious demographic but dehumanize people like my wife and me. We are working together to fight that stigma and all of the negative stereotypes that go along with being a nonbeliever. That professor in God’s Not Dead isn’t real. He is a strawman. My wife and I are and we are doing real, tangible, good work in the world.
You may be thinking to yourself what makes me so certain there is no God and, if so, what motivates me to even get out of bed in the morning?
My wife and I have dedicated our lives to humanitarian work to better the lives of those around us. We believe that our time is precious and finite so our motivation is that and we get one chance to make the absolute most of our short lives. My personal search for meaning in the world has led me to one conclusion- there are far more good people than bad and we are all in this together. We have to help each other. Along with that I choose to live an evidence based life. To my religious friends- I respect your right to have faith and believe in the unseen but I simply cannot. If tangible evidence of a God was presented to me tomorrow I would acknowledge it. Here’s the thing, though- I actually don’t put that much thought into it. I generally don’t worry too much about the question of God. My atheism is no more important to me than the fact I am a supporter of Liverpool Football Club or that I enjoy blueberry pancakes. It’s just another facet of who I am. This post is the most I’ve ever written about it.
Are there bad atheists? Absolutely. There are also bad Christians and bad Muslims. I know wonderful atheists. I also know wonderful Christians and Muslims. There are good and bad in every group. The group I belong to, however, is rarely painted in a positive light.
I am a volunteer for the Humanist Service Corps. We exist under the umbrella of Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB). FBB is a humanist charitable giving and service organization that supports secular charities and people volunteering in humanist and atheists groups. Beyond supporting secular charities and service, FBB makes a point of regularly supporting non-proselytizing religious organizations in order to Challenge the Gap.
This isn’t an effort to say look at what good I am doing. It’s, beyond the women’s rights work itself, an effort to show people their preconceived biases and personal opinions that think of nonbelievers in sweeping generalizations are wrong. You can say we are one small anecdotal example but I have seven team members here in Ghana working for the same reasons for the Humanist Service Corps and humanists around the world supporting our work.